IBM – Also Moving to the Workplace of the Future

Like Automattic, IBM is getting rid of the old way of working and is moving to be a real network. Here is my interview with Luis Suarez who lives the new IBM life.

What is stopping your organization from creating the kind of work environment where you are in control of your time? What is stopping your organization from allowing you to use the tools and the gear  that you know work best for you?

Of course the answer is culture. But who can you use an example to your organization to give you a chance to shift your organizational culture? The answer ironically is IBM!


Last week I called my old IBM buddy Luis Suarez at his home office in a small village on the Canary Islands. I wanted to find out directly what the new IBM was like.

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Here is where the Canary Islands are. I show you this to make a point. Luis’s reporting boss is in Madrid and his team is in the US. Each one of his US team live in a separate city. One lives in Toronto. Luis doesn’t even work in the capital of the Canaries but in a  small village. He is part of a group of 200,000 IBMers who work remotely. He is one of 5,000 who use Macs! The IT group at IBM, far from being the Gestapo have a mandate to serve the workplace of the future. Mobility is the key issue. Everything is done to ensure that the individual is connected to the team at any time. The individual chooses their kit. All laptops are supported. All apps are supported. Skype plays a huge role in the organization. All access is supported. Again the key here is to give the IBM worker the ability to control their own work space and to be connected to the larger whole.

My conversation with Luis focused on two strands – what was this like and how had IBM been able to cross the culture barrier. Let’s start with the Culture Barrier.

The key to the culture was to stop measuring presence – ie punching the clock as at a factory – and to start measuring results and outcomes. This of course is true for any consultant. I am not hired to be busy I am hired to get some specific things done. In reality that is how all work should be measured but in reality that is not how work is measured. We measure instead the appearance of work as evidenced by how much we are seen at the office.

Once you make this cultural shift, then everything opens up. Also the organization gets more focused. After all were we not all meant to be going somewhere and not merely being busy?

The other key to the culture was to get the IT department and the CIO behind their main task which is enabling the people to get the most out of their investment in technology. In most organizations the role of IT and the CIO is in effect the opposite. It is to control the legacy systems at all costs.

Now the full power of all that is happening in the world of tools and apps becomes available. Security is something that you design in rather than make security the only issue.

So what is life like for Luis and for the 200,000 other IBMers who work outside of the “office”?

First of he gets to choose where he lives. Luis is not a native Canarian and comes from Northern Spain. He could have worked in Madrid. One of the worlds most attractive cities. Also right up there in costs. But, like me he loves the Island life. He lives in a place of remarkable beauty that is very affordable too but he is paid a global wage. He has an aesthetic and a surplus that is not normally available to those that choose to live in a major city.

His team is in North America spread over a number of time zones. Luis’s work day begins at noon and ends at 7pm which in Spanish culture is ideal because dinner is not usually until 9.30 or 10pm. Of course these hours are not fixed because he is measured by results. He has a huge amount of flexibility. No fretting about the plumber or the dog going to the vet. If he had been married lots of space to be a great parent. No commute. No office wardrobe.

I asked Luis about that dreaded part of the conventional office – all those interminable meetings!

The team are connected in real time by a variety of chat tools. If you have a question, you ask it. Most issues are settled in real time meaning that they only have one meeting a week and that is very focused. In a virtual meeting like this, everyone is still working in parallel. In a face to face meeting this is impolite, but in a virtual meeting it helps. As issues shift on the agenda, new material is surfaced. There are never any minutes etc because it is all recorded in real time.

The meeting that really count are the social ones. Periodically the team gets together face to face and works and most importantly bonds. Because they are all on the road, they spend a lot of the time socially. THIS is the glue that works better than being “at the office” all day with people that you don’t really know.

So what does this mean?

It means that there is no excuse anymore. If IBM can do this with 200,000 people so can you.

It means that the whole work/life issue can be taken off the table. So long as you have to turn up at the same time at a place far from home, there can be no balance.

The key? Measure results. The outcome, a vibrant engaged, enthusiastic workforce and a focused organization. What could be better than that?

Oh yes and one more thing. Everyone’s costs get lowered. Luis can choose where he lives and plant roots. He has no commuting costs. IBM save on the office costs. My bet is that if we could see the healthcare costs of IBM, they would be much lower than in a firm that insisted on the old ways. For what drives our health more than any other factor is the issue of control.

The old adage used to be “No one got fired for hiring IBM”. Maybe we can modify this today and say “If IBM can do this, so can we”

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